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Chinese Dissidents Remember Liberal Reformer Hu Yaobang

FILE - A three-volume book which chronicles the life of China's reformist Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 sparked the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, is seen in Hong Kong, Nov. 16, 2005.

It has been three decades since the death in 1989 of former prominent party official and Chinese liberal reformer Hu Yaobang triggered mass student demonstrations.

Those rallies ultimately led to the bloody Tiananmen crackdown in June, known later as the June 4th massacre.

Observers say that, while the Chinese Communist Party continues to honor Hu as a patriot, many of his reform initiatives, such as the two-term limit for China’s president, have been overturned.

And they expect social controls to be further tightened as China enters the most politically fraught period of the year in the lead-up to sensitive anniversaries including the 100th anniversary of the May 4th Movement and the 30th anniversary of June 4th massacre.

Hu’s Legacy

“When I recalled [what] Hu Yaobang [had achieved] some 30 years ago, I deeply felt as if that was from another life. China has become a different country… And by his example, you can tell how much this [communist] party has backtracked,” said Wang Dan, one of the student leaders in the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

"Hu Yaobang neither put his own, nor the Communist Party's grip of power before [the welfare] of the people. It was in his belief that people would live a better life should there be no intervention from country leaders and that the economy and society would revive itself should the party impose no social and economic controls,” said Xia Ming, professor of political science and global affairs at The City University of New York.

“I'd say that no Chinese leaders before or after Hu have shared his vision or style of governance,” Professor Xia added.

Once the right-hand man to Deng Xiaoping, Hu – a leader close to students and workers – was sacked from his position as the party’s general secretary in early 1987 for having tolerated “bourgeois liberalization,” or Western democratic influences.

Late last year, the Chinese authorities finally unveiled a stature in honor of Hu in his home town of Liuyang, in China’s southern province of Hunan, but have thus far done nothing to follow through on the legacy he left behind.

Political Rehabilitation

“His biggest contribution [to China] is that he had helped restore order and right the wrongs,” Hu’s youngest son, Hu Dehua, told VOA in an earlier interview, referring to the late leader’s liberalization policies, including rehabilitation of members of the political elite who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

FILE - A statue of former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, a reformer whose death sparked the Tiananmen Square democracy protests, being unveiled in Taizhou, east China's Zhejiang province, Jan. 13, 2013.
FILE - A statue of former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, a reformer whose death sparked the Tiananmen Square democracy protests, being unveiled in Taizhou, east China's Zhejiang province, Jan. 13, 2013.

Among others, the late Hu helped redress the political fortunes of Xi Zhongxun, father to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“By ending the elder Xi’s 16-year purge from the party, and restoring him to a party position in Guangdong, Hu Yaobang paved the way for the elder Xi’s continued power and influence, and for the younger Xi’s rise to ultimate power in China today,” China watcher Bonnie Girard argued in an article published on The Diplomat magazine.

During a private memorial last week at Hu’s home in Beijing, Du Daozheng, former head of China’s press and publications administration, lauded Hu as “a true practitioner of the spirits of May 4th movement,” local media reported. The movement's calls for science and democracy still remain a long-term pursuit for many in China.

Du was formerly the publisher of a Chinese reformist magazine, Yanhuang Chunqiu, where Hu Dehua served as his deputy before the publication was shut down two years ago amid President Xi’s tightening grip on power and aggressive ideological campaign.

China organized no public memorials to mark the 30th anniversary of Hu’s death Monday.

But supporters showed up with flowers in front of Hu’s tomb, which is located in Gongqing City of Jiangxi province.

Silencing the Hu’s

Despite his father’s fight for free speech, the junior Hu declined to talk to VOA again, according to one of his close friends.

“He has to hold his tongue” in the wake of the controversy, which involves the authorities' recent demand for him to move out of his parents’ house in Beijing, his friend told VOA.

Hu Dehua was recently pressured to move quickly out of his father’s house – a state property the family is no longer entitled to after his mother passed away last March.

Xia of The City University of New York argued that the move was meant to send a political message.

“[China] hopes that his residence won't be turned into a mecca for gatherings or [pro-democracy] activities. Meanwhile, I think, it gave the Hu’s a heads-up or warning that they are being watched at this sensitive period of time,” Xia said.

Hu Dehua and his elder brother Hu Deping, former deputy minister of the party’s United Front Work under the Central committee, are both known to be outspoken individuals, who often comment on the country’s political reform.

Remembering June 4th

In addition to discarding Hu’s political vision, China is also trying to erase memory of the June 4th movement.

Celebrating the movement’s 30th anniversary in June, Wang said it is important to refresh the world’s memory about the student movement and set the record right.

It is the government’s bloody crackdown, instead of student protests, that stalled China’s political reforms, he said, rebutting some arguments that tried to discredit the movement.